Grounded Under the Volcanic Ash: Eyewitness Report of the Chaos in Europe

Eyjafjallajökull Volcano, Iceland, night glow photo

Image: Daniel Örn, Flickr

It started with a strange hue of gray in the skies. "Looks like rain," my friend commented as we started up the steps from the train platform on Thursday evening. Commuting home after being isolated all day behind the firewall of a Paris client, we were as yet unaware of the plume of ash spewing from Eyjafjallajökull Volcano in far away Iceland.

The good news is we woke Friday to a gorgeous sunrise...which lasted until 10 a.m.! The bad news we already knew: traffic chaos. Under the capitalized, bright red headline "Volcanic Cloud: Paris Airports Closure," bulletins continuously pushed back the expected duration of flight bans. But, as any experienced road warrior knows, when you are travelling and things get out of control, there is only one thing to do: find the humor in it.Of course, finding the humor always comes a bit hard when screen after screen at the train station reports "Complet" -- this train is full. All trains from Paris to the east are booked solid. Today. And tomorrow. And the next day. What do you know? The French train employees are in the tenth day of a strike. But there is nowhere to turn: after 45 minutes of searching the computer terminal at the train station, the service desk has progressed from client number 38 to 46. I am holding number 59.

Back to the laptop...maybe some old-fashioned sleuthing will turn up a route that meanders back home to Berlin. Sure enough: working in tandem, my friend finds a train on the French website that will get me across the border. I find a connection on the German Bahn website. We time our bookings to snatch the tickets one right after the other to make a complete journey. Voila! A trip to pick up the booked French ticket and find an internet cafe to print the German boarding card will seal the deal.

And with a secure route back to the bosom of my family, only one day later than planned, the humor begins to bubble to the surface. We walk to one of Paris' main train stations, Gare St. Lazare, in hopes of finishing our task more quickly at the larger service area. In spite of the large crowd already meandering through the cattle-gate style queue at only 9:00 a.m., we reach a service counter in good time, amused by crowd watching during the wait. As my French boarding card prints out, the station manager begins making rounds of all the service counters. Gesticulating wildly, he declares loudly and repeatedly as he passes each agent, "The trains are full! There are no more seats on any major line!" To fully appreciate the humor, you must imagine the outrageous French accent, and the satisfaction of knowing that this early bird got the boarding card. With ticket in hand, we leave the chaotic scene behind.

Luckily, I don't have to struggle with a hotel booking. Eventually, the French train company realizes that heroic gestures are required. They reinforce the train schedules to help stranded travellers find a way out. I look forward to the train ride: my friend loaned me her copy of McDonough & Braungart's classic manifesto Cradle to Cradle. Nature has finally made time for me to read it. All's well that ends well.

Maybe next time I will plan a better mode of transport: 7 Luxury Ways to Travel That are Also Easy on the Earth
More on Iceland's Volcanic Eruption:
Don't Go Into the Survival Shelter: Icelandic Volcano Eruption Unlikely to Have Global Impact
Volcanic Haze Closes British Airports; Continent Cut Off
SLIDESHOW: Earth on Fire: The Awesome Power of Volcanic Eruptions, Captured in Pictures
SLIDESHOW: Erupting Volcano's Incredible Impact

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